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Read the original essay, in French

Stéphane Mallarmé


    The perplexed poet

    A Preface

    by Jean-Michel MAULPOIX
    published by J. Corti, Feb 2002.
    Translated from the original French by Catherine Wieder

    The word « poet » is once more a dubious word. Both the object of a vague harmony and powerful suspicion. A word worn out to the thread, more and more difficult to pronounce, bearing so many secret and hidden mythologies. A word often recalling the days of lyres, muses, troubadours and fin’amor, sleazy dives and frock coats. An old word entailing dreams of that forlorn innocent age when the poet “lying on the green grass, his head resting on a tree, would sing his leisure on a two-penny fife”. A time when one seemed to have only to beat his heart softly in order to let language sing. A time for plenary poetry, for an inspired poetry, both messianic and prophesising, adorned with chosen figures, good feelings and beautiful images.

    Confusingly, the word poet seems to carry such a burdensome legacy. Yet, since the middle of the 19th century, which was the time of a splendid sunset, poets themselves started the sternest of self-criticisms by destroying charming spells and stales. The inspired man of long ago became a critic, in wait on the look-out for lures, less in a hurry to flee towards more beautiful elsewheres than longing to take a more accurate measure of what language may. Such a long time ago did the poet indeed lose both his aura and loftiness.

    What was the price to be paid? And why should the song be saved when the human voice releases the sound of a “cracked bell” (Baudelaire) and seems to close to become silent (Verlaine), utters its last goose note (Rimbaud) or dies in its throat with a spasm? How can one still refer to the ideal when the latter is no longer the horizon towards which one runs but rather a decathexed “sky instinct” when back-worlds blur giving way to the digging of “the space of the “inside” (Michaux)? But what are we talking about when we write? What is the meaning of that very writing gesture? Such are a few questions asked by modern poetry on close examination from within.

    Since the middle of the 19th century, French poetry thus started its involution: it goes backwards towards its source and checks the “carrying void” wherefrom it proceeds. From now on, it has become well aware that its is own will and capacity to settle (or rest) on to an absence of grounding.


    The backward ebb of any mythology is the good luck of its critical approach. Both worn out and a rebel, the late coming poet shows himself as he is at last. Neither an enchanter, nor rotting, yet carrying language towards its highest degree of intensity.

    The topic and purpose of this volume is to gather together a few feature of a portrait, i.e. study the poet in the very way he figures himself. As a prowler, stroller, rope dancer (a tightrope dancer, a hanged man, a bell ringer), surveyor, “strong passer-by” or spider-man patiently weaving its cobweb in time’s dead angles. Our purpose is to watch his rhythms, his turns of the pen, and of the tongue and scrutinize the obscure body of his imaginary world and writing.

    Is it necessary to stress that the poet is not only he who writes poems? He is a figure, with more or less steady and converging features whose status varies. He is the one who signs a work with his Name, but also himself built by the very, i.e. far more than the mere man who builds it. When one questions the part played implies observing the fictions. Thus is indeed some new way of asking the question: “what is poetry?” Thus one becomes careful of how to take care and what is this new power: a definition of the poem is at stake in the very representation of he who writes it.

    Such portraits of the modern poet are thus portraits of poetry itself on reaching an age of perplexity, i.e. late and reflexive. When the poet’s who am I questions the poem’s why. When what is at stake is less prising than keeping in touch with the question which everything hides and forgets. He is perplexed whose feeling nor inspiration are enough any longer to be driven along, he who no longer lets his pen follow to his liking feverish ramps, he who no longer throws away “with fury everything that comes into his mouth” (Montaigne), he who bends over language with a “specific care” (Quignard), who suggest far more than he expresses, nay who dims and lets vaguely guess, “holds back” translation, goes along always further with his quest, never claims to know, worries, is obstinate, watches his fellow-men, never turns away his eyes, waits, with patience, opens and closes so many books, limps between his room and the street, insists and never gives up …


    If one believes Joe Bouquet, then “writing a book compels the reader to witness all the vicissitudes of a situation to be enlightened”. The investigator is also the very same man who is often called “a private detective”, i.e. he who tries to put together again an identity or a lost memory by gathering together quite a few skimpy clues. If Edgar Poe’s shadow still hovers so insistently over modern poetry, since Baudelaire translated his Extraordinary Tales, it also brought with it the perplexity of the investigator together with a “lucidity delusion”.

    But also a guilt delusion, since the poet is forever charged of the very same crimes against the mind, the morals and the language: he is accused of doing too much, of saying too much, of adding too much, thus boasting, of exaggerating, of losing the measure, of talking about what he doesn’t know, of adorning and embellishing, of idealizing and falsifying the reality of things … Now the criminal, the judge and captain are but one single person, or the poet may be well aware that he is indeed so guilty as to inflict on himself the strictest of surveillance and the most radical of charges having sometimes not the least harshest words so as to describe his own work and for the “inescapable lyrical thrust” (Mallarmé) wherefrom he proceeds. All his effort then turns against towards the “poetic”. And one is well aware that today few stick to such an identity but in proportion to insults heaped on to poetry.

    Now a few contemporary poets write harsh diatribes similar to those that been written in the past against the “poetical mind” (a dubious expression indeed …) by the fathers of the Naturalist School, e.g. Edmond Duranty: “rabbits, belonging to a rodent race, do multiply themselves exceedingly quickly, poets do to even more rapidly and yet they are public enemies, i.e. another very overwhelming race of rodent animals who constantly attack the feeling of what is fair and what is true in order to put the love of the turgic, pompous, bombastic, affected and inane” in its place.

    That poets themselves – within quite a different logic nowadays aiming no longer at defending the “feeling of what is fair and true” but, rather, cross ignorance and charge the unnameable and unthinkable of the real – in their turn, reach the climax of poetry which deserves one to linger …

    Thus the author of these pages is indeed perplexed too, would he also understand what he should believe, being less a theoretician than a reader, trying to find out in other people’s books the raison d’être of his own writing, i.e. less a poet than a critic, pursuing the why and the how of the task of writing by bouncing from one question to another, worried about motifs, relationships and links.


    Perplexus in Latin means “entwined, entangled and confounded”, then in the figurative language, “puzzled, embarrassed, obscure”. I do care that such a term should resist the “totalitarian bad habit of alignment”, keeping poetry in the entanglement of its very own contradictions, among the humps, tips and whirls instead of opening any artificial outcome that would pretend freeing it from complexity… The modern poet is not only perplexed for having become critical but because he toils with his tongue entwined into its cloth as much willing to discover its weft as to be careful there should not be knots and that the thread should not be lost.